Tag Archives: Mormon

Can Mormons Be Christians?

Part 4 of a series.

In my upcoming book, Understanding Your Mormon Neighbor, I discuss how to think about the question, “Are Mormons Christian?”  I’m sharing some of those thoughts in this series of posts.

In my last post, I explained why evangelical and mainstream Christians do not consider the LDS Church to be a Christian church: because its beliefs stand far outside the biblical and historical boundaries that mark the Christian faith.

But as I noted in a previous post, we evaluate individuals differently from institutions.  Institutions are classified by what they assert to be true.  For individuals, we use a more experiential definition.  We call a person a Christian based on their standing with God, which depends not just on affirming certain truths, but on accepting and acting on the truth – which evangelicals understand as trusting fully and solely in the finished work of Jesus Christ to be right with God.

While we can examine the beliefs of Mormonism to evaluate whether it is Christian or not, no one can see into the heart of another person to know with assurance where that person stands with God.  Thus I can state with confidence that the LDS Church is not a part of the historic, biblical Christian faith.  But I cannot declare whether any individual Latter-day Saint is a Christian or not.  Only God can ultimately know that person’s interior condition.

Based on the definition I accept, I assume that some Mormons are regenerate, heaven-bound children of God, and that some members of evangelical churches are not.  I imagine there are people who genuinely became Christians in childhood or youth, but joined the LDS Church as adults without full knowledge of its world view and beliefs, perhaps because of a romantic relationship.  I know people who, as Mormons, read the Bible and understood its meaning apart from the LDS interpretive grid, and came to adopt the historic biblical gospel.  I’ve met people whom I believe had an authentic, saving encounter with God as members of the LDS Church.

I do believe that the more closely a person adopts the LDS world view and central beliefs, the more unlikely it is that he or she could be a regenerate, heaven-bound Christian, because the core beliefs of Mormonism are contrary to the biblical good news message of God’s saving grace.  I know a number of people who left Mormonism because they found their newly discovered evangelical experience and beliefs to be increasingly at odds with the LDS world view.  In the end they felt they could no longer support the things the LDS Church stands for.  But it makes sense to me that other genuine Christ-followers within Mormonism would stay in the LDS Church for family reasons.

So Mormonism has to be considered Christian in the broadest sense.  In a more particular sense it is not.  Individual Mormons may be Christians.  But if they are, it seems to me that it is in spite of, rather than because of, what Mormonism teaches.  I guess we’ll find out when we get to heaven.

For a different twist on the issue, see my next post.

Is Mormonism Christian?

Part 3 of a series.

In previous posts, I’ve noted the underlying problem of definitions when it comes to the discussion of whether Mormonism is a legitimate Christian faith.  Latter-day Saints use a broad definition, and claim to be Christian because Jesus has a central role in their beliefs and practices.  Evangelicals use a narrow definition, actually two definitions: one for institutions and one for individuals.  (See my previous post.)

Referring to institutions, we use a theological definition.  The title “Christian” becomes a shorthand for a set of beliefs about what is ultimately true.  We define this in terms of what the followers of Jesus since the first century and around the globe have commonly understood the Bible to teach – not in every detail encompassing every secondary issue, but in the core, essential doctrines that define the heart of Christian belief.  The Bible is clear about the nature of God, the person of Jesus Christ, the human condition and destiny, the conditions for and the effects of salvation, and the like.  On these matters there is widespread agreement, historically and geographically, among the divergent movements within Christianity.

When evangelical Christians say that the LDS Church is not a Christian church, we are asserting that this biblically and historically defined understanding of the Christian faith sets certain legitimate boundaries.  Hinduism and Islam stand outside those boundaries.  I believe a number of sects that arose from within the Christian context have placed themselves outside of historic, biblical Christianity by virtue of their truth claims – including such groups as Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others.

Thus, by and large, Mormonism is denied the label “Christian” based on what traditional Christians consider to be unbiblical beliefs, such as the view that human beings can become gods, that God is an exalted man with a physical body, that people have a second chance for salvation after death,  that the fall of Adam and Eve was a blessing, that the basis of salvation is not the work of Christ alone,  that families are required for exaltation, and more.  The argument is that some LDS doctrines are so far outside the Christian faith as it is defined historically and biblically that they mark Mormonism as essentially a foreign religion.

Latter-day Saints would not deny that Mormonism is not Christian in this narrower sense.  In fact, they would not want to be considered Christian based on this definition.

But what about individuals?  If Mormonism stands outside the stream of biblical Christianity, can individual Mormons be considered Christians?  I will address that issue in my next post.

Are Mormons Christians? Two Separate Questions

Part 2 of a series.

When it comes to the question: “Are Mormons Christians?” I’ve pointed out that Latter-day Saints tend to use a broad definition of the word “Christian”.  According to a broad definition, Mormonism can be considered a Christian faith.  But evangelicals have reasons to use a much narrower definition.  Before I elaborate on that, let me point out that some confusion arises because evangelicals use the word “Christian” in different ways among ourselves.

We are willing to use “Christian” in a broader sense when we’re talking about the entire historic Christian tradition.  In the context of history, we talk about Nestorian Christianity even though we disagree with the Nestorian view on the divine and human natures of Christ.  In the context of the broad Christian tradition, we include the Episcopal Church as a Christian denomination even though we may be concerned about their views on homosexual practice.  Latter-day Saints I know look at this as a double standard.  How can evangelicals grant Christian status to a church that denies fundamental biblical morality (Mormons might say) while denying it to another church that takes a strong stand on biblical morality?  There is no double standard; we simply use the word “Christian” in varying ways in different contexts.

Speaking of different uses, the whole question is further confused by the difference between institutions and individuals.  To ask: “Is Mormonism Christian” is a different question than: “Are Mormons Christians?”  Let me explain.

When it comes to institutions – a college, an agency, a denomination – evangelicals typically use a theological definition.  The institution in question is called “Christian” or not based on what it professes as truth.  “Christian” becomes a shorthand for a particular set of beliefs.  This definition is an attempt to coalesce the essential, biblically derived doctrines on key issues – such as God, humanity, creation, salvation – that have characterized Christianity worldwide since the first century.  When we ask if an institution is Christian, we typically mean: does it stand within the mainstream of historic, biblical Christian doctrine, by virtue of what it asserts to be ultimately true?

But when it comes to individuals, we commonly use an experiential definition.   We call a person “a Christian” based on their status in relation to God.  Using biblical categories of experience, we’re asking whether or not that person is regenerated by the Holy Spirit or still dead in sin, bound for heaven or for hell, under God’s grace or still under his just condemnation.  The issue is not simply right doctrine or a certain kind of ethical life, but a right standing with God as a function of one’s response of saving faith in God’s gracious work.  None of us can see into another person’s heart, so we have no absolute assurance of where anyone else stands with God.  So we use “Christian” to refer to individuals who profess that they are right with God by virtue of their trust in the saving work of Christ alone.  Certain basic truths must be believed, even if imperfectly or incompletely.  But believing those truths does not constitute anyone as a Christian in this sense.  A changed lifestyle is expected as the consequence, and thus as some sort of evidence, of salvation.  According to this experiential definition, we would certainly not assume that a person is right with God – and thus a Christian – simply because of the church he or she attends.  In other words, when we ask if an individual is or is not a Christian, we mean: has that person trusted in God’s provision through Jesus Christ alone so as to effect an eternal, spiritual change in his or her life?

In the next post, I’ll apply these two definitions of “Christian” to Mormonism.

Are Mormons Christians?

Part 1 of a series.

I recently finished the manuscript for my most recent book, called “Understanding Your Mormon Neighbor”.  In one appendix, I deal with how to handle the question that comes up often: are Mormons Christians?  I’m going to lay out my thoughts on this over the next few posts.  You can find the expanded version in the book when it comes out next year (Zondervan).

When we talk about who is or is not a Christian, it has to be understood from the outset that Mormons and evangelicals are  using the word “Christian” in two different ways.  It is fundamentally about definitions.  In some ways, the debate is about who has the right to define what the word means.   To be honest, I don’t think this is a very fruitful topic.  I always try to redirect the issue, because until we evaluate the different definitions in play, it is likely that the two groups will continue to talk past each other on this matter.

Evangelicals use a narrow definition of the word (complicated by the fact that we use the word in different ways ourselves, in different contexts – which creates even more confusion for Latter-day Saints).  I’ll discuss this in the next post.

But Mormons use a broad definition: for them, a Christian is someone who follows Jesus Christ.  They point out that Jesus is central to the church’s very name.  They wonder: how can “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” not be considered a Christian church?  Mormons believe in that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, healed the sick, raised the dead, and offered himself as a sinless sacrifice of the sins of the world.  They believe that he literally rose from the dead and lives today.  They commemorate his death in every Sunday service, and conclude their prayers in his name.

Evangelicals understand that Latter-day Saints mean different things than we do when they make some of those claims.  But to Mormons, that is not enough of a reason to deny them the use of the title.  But because of these core beliefs, and because their devotion to Jesus is real (as they understand him – which is another matter), Mormons are bewildered when anyone claims that they are not Christian.

In practical terms, many Latter-day Saints also have in mind an ethical or behavioral definition: Christians are people who live Christ-like lives.  They point to their lifestyle, which embodies “Christian” virtues like marital fidelity, obedience to God, service, tithing, care for the poor, and the like.  I suspect that when people claim Mormons aren’t Christian, it comes across to Latter-day Saints as saying, “Your upright way of life is not recognized as valid.”

By contrast, Mormons look at the lives of many people who attend recognized Christian churches, but whose lives bear little resemblance to Jesus’ example and values.  They wonder: Why do those people get a pass?  Why do they get to be called Christians – even when they don’t live like followers of Christ – and we don’t?

Based on the broad definition, the LDS Church has a pretty good claim to make.  Jesus Christ does have a central role in their beliefs and practices.  Mormonism is certainly within the Christian family of religions, compared to Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism.

Go here for the next point in the discussion: what definition are evangelicals using to determine that Mormons are not Christians?

People of Paradox, IV

In his book, People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture. (Oxford University Press, 2007), Terryl Givens identifies four areas of paradox within Mormonism that affect the practice and development of the cultural arts.

The first is the tension between free agency and authoritarianism.  The second area of paradox is the relationship between holding truth with absolute certainty and the quest for gaining new knowledge.  The third paradox in LDS culture can be expressed as transcendence versus earthiness.  Givens points out that Joseph Smith collapsed the realms of heaven and earth into one, minimizing the utter transcendence of God.

The fourth area of paradox or tension that Givens identifies is exceptionalism versus universalism.  There is an impulse in Mormonism to emphasize how different and unique Latter-day Saints are.

“Reading themselves into the biblical promises of a chosen lineage” (55), Mormons have developed a sense of identity as a distinct and chosen people, which is reinforced by unique practices and commitments associated with the temple, “where sacred secrecy and the additional selectivity of participants pushes yet further the sense of a people apart.” (55)  The claim to be the only the only true and living church on earth also fosters LDS exclusivism.

Because of this exceptionalism, Latter-day Saints may seem to non-Mormons to be arrogant and insular.  Givens notes:

“Such peculiarity is reinforcing as a boundary marker but…it can be a hindrance to bridge building, to missionary work, and perhaps more poignantly, to Mormons who must engage the world as participants in a human community that increasingly transcends Utah’s boundaries.”  (58-59)

On the other hand, the LDS sense of uniqueness is counterbalanced by universalist  factors.  For example, LDS theology posits that all humans are related to one another as divine offspring.  The emphasis on genealogy reinforces the connection between human families over multiple generations.  Givens believes:

“This conflict between exclusivity, on the one hand, and, on the other, a moral imperative (not to say primal longing) for universal community and acceptance in a larger fellowship is manifest at many levels of Mormon culture.”  (58)

Perceptively, Givens understands the tension this creates in Latter-day Saints’ relationship with the rest of the religious world.  He identifies this irony:

“After predicating their very existence on the corruption of all other Christian faiths (‘I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong’), and asserting their unique claim to be its ‘only true’ embodiment, Latter-day Saints are chagrined when they are excluded from the very community of believers they have just excoriated.”  (58)

Another dimension to the exceptionalist versus universalist tension arises out of Mormonism’s global expansion.  Because of its history and some aspects of its doctrine, the LDS Church has “an intensely American complexion.”  (60).  Yet development of new mission fields and growth in international membership have pushed Mormonism to take on a more culturally universal complexion.  With the hierarchy of leadership firmly implanted in the American West, Mormonism hardly seems to have become very intercultural at this point.  Givens correctly identifies the challenge the movement faces in the future:

“Prepared or not to make the transformation from an American into a truly multinational church, in other words, Mormonism is de facto becoming one.  The complication  that inheres in this polarity, however, is the difficulty of sorting out exactly which aspects of Mormonism are essential constituents of the faith and which are expendable features deriving from American culture.”  (60-61)